Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, May 24 2018 01:00PM

Thirty-third in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.


Although Jane Austen was, famously, not a big fan of Bath, London was a different story: Her trips to the metropolis to visit her worldly brother Henry seem to have been delightful whirls of shopping, parties, and culture – much like London tourism today.


The letter Jane Austen wrote to her sister, Cassandra, exactly 205 years ago today (#85 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence) memorializes a London trip during which Austen entertained herself with a whimsical pastime: seeking likenesses of the eldest Bennet sisters -- Pride and Prejudice had been published four months earlier – among the paintings in exhibitions she visited.


At one relatively unheralded exhibit, “I was very well pleased—particularly. . . with a small portrait of Mrs Bingley, excessively like her. . . . exactly herself, size, shaped face, features & sweetness; there never was a greater likeness,” Austen writes. “She is dressed in a white gown, with green ornaments, which convinces me of what I had always supposed, that green was a favourite colour with her.”


(Scholars believe Austen was probably referring to this painting, Portrait of Mrs. Q (Mrs. Harriet Quentin), by the French portraitist Jean-François-Marie Huet-Villiers).




The following Monday, the day her letter was written, Austen attended a far more famous exhibition, the Sir Joshua Reynolds retrospective at the British Institution in Pall Mall, searching in vain for a portrait of “Mrs. D.,” aka Elizabeth Bennet Darcy. “I can only imagine that Mr D. prizes any Picture of her too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye,” Austen writes. “I can imagine he wd have that sort [of] feeling—that mixture of Love, Pride & Delicacy.”


The 1813 Reynolds exhibition is the subject of What Jane Saw, University of Texas English Prof. Janine Barchas’ fascinating online reconstruction of the paintings Austen viewed, displayed as they were two centuries ago. It’s a striking demonstration of the power that comes from marrying literary-historical scholarship to contemporary technology, and it brings to life the afternoon visit that Austen describes to Cassandra.


Scholarship aside, I find it charming to encounter the Austen of this letter -- another fond author, so wrapped up in her imagined people, with their favorite colors and happy marriages, that they seem to go on living once her story ends, becoming as real to her as the real-life sitters in the portraits she viewed. Devouring fanfic Austen sequels or comparing our co-workers to Austen characters, we Janeites can relate


By Deborah Yaffe, May 21 2018 01:00PM

It’s been quite a while since I last discussed the unfortunate phenomenon of faux-Jane Austen quotes, usually originating in Jane Austen movie scripts, proliferating in the Internet echo chamber. Perhaps this pause has lulled you into the belief that my good work, along with that of untold numbers of other Janeites laboring to correct the record, has borne fruit, driving the legions of misquoters into retirement.


Alas, no.


Once again, our text is drawn from Bustle, that rah-rah Girl Power website that seems to take a perverse pride in never, ever double-checking its sources, at least when it comes to Austen. The latest offender: a story headlined, with a word-omitting sloppiness that bodes ill for what follows, “15 Quotes From Books To Use Your Personal Mantra On Bad Mental Health Days.”


Parenthetically, I must note the strange self-contradiction of this particular article, which points out the bankruptcy of feel-good bromides – “[b]eing told to ‘just think happy thoughts’ and ‘try harder’ gets really old after a while, as anyone with mental illness will tell you” – before offering up more elegant versions of the same thing from the likes of Alice Walker, Audre Lord, and Sylvia Plath (!) and urging readers to “[m]emorize them to recite like mantras, and you'll always have an uplifting quote to help you muddle through.”


I admit I feel a teensy bit bad about criticizing the writer, who implies that she is among “those of us who live with mental illness every day.” But not bad enough to stay my hand when, right there at number fourteen among the promised “Quotes From Books,” I find this: " 'It isn't what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.' — Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility"


Back in November 2015, I laid the issue of this particular misquotation to rest in what I feel I may describe, with all due humility, as the definitive blog post on the topic. Yet, like a zombie out of a Pride and Prejudice mashup, this mistake will not stay dead. So I must repeat: This is not a line from a Jane Austen novel. It is not even really a line from a filmed adaptation of a Jane Austen novel. It is a garbled version of a line from Andrew Davies’ 2008 TV adaptation of Sense and Sensibility.


I think it’s time that someone created an online listicle discussing how best to cope with the stress and anxiety brought on by finding faux-Austen quotes on the web. It probably won’t appear on Bustle.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 17 2018 01:00PM

Over the years, I’ve swooned about Austen-linked real estate coming up for sale or rent. Perhaps I have said things like, “If money were no object, I’d buy that place in a minute.”


I was kidding, but Canadian Tara Rout apparently isn’t. Rout, an Edmonton lawyer who has written Austen fanfic under the name Melanie Kerr, has launched an insanely ambitious Kickstarter appeal to buy Luckington Court, the stately Wiltshire home that played Longbourn in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.


By July 10, Rout hopes to raise $8.5 million, enough to buy the eight-bedroom house -- originally marketed at £9 million ($12.1 million) but now marked down to £5.75 million ($7.7 million) -- and redecorate it so that it precisely resembles the Bennets' Longbourn of the beloved miniseries. Then she plans to turn it into a sort of real-life Austenland: a place where Janeites can – for a price, of course – sip afternoon tea, dance at a ball, stay overnight, or host the ultimate Jane Austen wedding.


Rout has some relevant experience: In Edmonton, she runs a company called Regency Encounters, which has staged local Jane Austen balls for several years, along with what Rout calls, in a radio interview, “epic nerd parties” centered on the Harry Potter and Dungeons & Dragons fandoms.


It would be delightful to see this dream come to fruition but, frankly, Rout’s hopes seem pretty close to delusional. As of last year, reportedly, less than one percent of Kickstarter's campaigns had raised more than $1 million, and only eight had ever raised as much as Rout is seeking.


By yesterday, Rout had attracted pledges of just over $15,000 from nineteen backers, and most of that appears to have come from a single person who opted for the $10,000 wedding-package premium. She's got a lo-o-ong way to go. Still, I guess you never know. Christmas wedding at Longbourn, anyone?


By Deborah Yaffe, May 14 2018 01:00PM

By now, pretty much every Janeite in the known universe has seen the moment in the BBC’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice when Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy dives into a lake for a refreshing swim and then strides home across a field with his wet white shirt clinging fetchingly to his manly chest.


Most of us were, um, not paying attention to the scenery when we watched that part. But if you’re the kind of person who found Firth’s pectorals an annoying distraction from the artfully cultivated wildflower meadow through which he walks, I’ve got a job for you: Lyme Park, the estate in Cheshire, England, that stood in for Darcy's Pemberley in the BBC’s P&P, is looking for a new head gardener.


Gary Rainford, who held the job for the last twenty-four years – and who managed the gardens during the filming of P&P – retired in April. The listing for his job quotes a salary of just over £28,000 (about $38,000), plus benefits that include a discounted gym membership, which seems like it would be superfluous for someone supervising seventeen acres of garden. “A broad knowledge of plants and horticultural skills” is among the professional requirements, which puts me – a person who, literally, once killed a small cactus -- well out of the running.


Applications for the job closed yesterday, but hey – maybe they’ll extend the deadline if you can prove you’ve read P&P thoroughly enough to know that the wet-shirt scene isn’t in there.


By Deborah Yaffe, May 10 2018 01:00PM

If only “literary Darwinism” had existed when I was in school, I might have liked science a whole lot more. Yes, according to a story on the BBC’s website last week, a new branch of scholarship is “asking what exactly makes a good story, and the evolutionary reasons that certain narratives – from Homer’s Odyssey to Harry Potter – have such popular appeal.”


The gist of the explanation is that stories give us practice at social strategizing, allowing us to imaginatively navigate complex situations that may arise in our real lives and figure out which responses work, and which don’t. Stories that highlight the importance of cooperation and the social costs of selfishness are especially enduring, the thinking goes, because they help communicate and reinforce norms that smooth the waters of communal life.


Needless to say, Jane Austen gets recruited to support this theory. Apparently, Pride and Prejudice is an example of a classic story trope wherein the baddies are those who abuse their power or seek “social dominance at the expense of others” (think Caroline Bingley) whereas the heroic figures are less interested in individual achievement and social climbing (think Elizabeth Bennet).


P&P also shows Austen to be an “intuitive evolutionary psychologist” because she understands that, while women ultimately prefer “stable ‘dad’ figures (like Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility),” they are also drawn to the Wickhams and Willoughbys. “The ‘dads’ might be the better choice for the long-term security and protection of your children, but according to an evolutionary theory known as the ‘sexy son hypothesis’, falling for an unfaithful cad can have [its] own advantages since [he] can pass on [his] good looks, cunning and charm to his own children, who may then also enjoy greater sexual success,” the article notes.*


“I think that’s part of the key for these stories’ longevity,” argues University of Michigan scholar Daniel Kruger. “[It’s why] Jane Austen wrote these novels two hundred years ago and there are still movies being made today.”


I’m of two minds here. On the one hand, it would be futile to argue that a human activity as primary and enduring as storytelling has no evolutionary roots. On the other hand, though, it seems mindlessly reductive to suggest that evolution explains “why Jane Austen wrote these novels” and why they still appeal to us today.


We all like stories, but only a minority of us write them, so there must be more to Jane Austen’s motivation than some primal human drive. Surely the powerful need for self-expression is at least as compelling a force as social utility when it comes to a life choice like Jane Austen’s.


As for the appeal of Austen’s stories, even in her own time, she was hardly alone in noticing the potent appeal of bad boys and the countervailing pull of stable, honorable men. But nobody’s lining up to buy tickets to Samuel Richardson adaptations. And while the tropes she helped develop may feature in a boatload of contemporary romance novels, few of those books have achieved Austen-level acclaim or popularity.


Why is that? Because while the success of a work of art may owe something to its ability to tap into deep-seated, even hard-wired, human social needs, ultimately it takes more than that for a story to endure. Call it genius or artistry, an eye for a powerful image or an ear for snappy dialogue: whatever you call it, your explanatory framework has to account, somehow, for quality. By and large, it’s the good stuff that lasts.



* I feel I should point out to all you evolutionary psychologists that publicizing the fact that your field has produced something known as the “sexy son hypothesis” could serve as an excellent recruiting tool for a certain kind of student.


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